‘I can’t sleep at night. I lie awake, in silence, in darkness, my limbs twitching, aching, longing to get up, while my tired consciousness tries to will my body into slumber. Yet sleep’s own weird logic tells my body to have its way. It says: don’t lie there, get up and do something different – and that doesn’t mean bimbling about on your computer. If you share my condition, then I suggest you take yourself on a voyage into the London night. You might as well, if you’re wide awake. You could try a ‘dérive’ – an attempt to get wilfully lost. Go out of your door. Turn right. Take the first turning on the left, and then the first on the right. Repeat until you don’t know where you are.
Notice what you see, and tomorrow night, when you still can’t sleep, remember your trip instead of counting sheep, which doesn’t work anyway, even here in Radnorshire where I live and where there are lots more sheep than people. I know, because I’ve counted them, and I’m still wide awake. I lived in London at the turn of the millennium. I ran a secondhand bookshop on the Charing Cross Road before the coffee grinders drove us out. We closed at nine in the evening, and it was my delight when the weather allowed me to walk home to Islington through the labyrinthine London night, always trying to find new ways to get lost.
Start at Marble Arch with a visit to the Bliss late-night chemist. You won’t be waiting in line with Mr Jimi to get your prescription filled, but why not try a herbal sleeping remedy? It might not work, but you can try it. You could be better off walking up the Edgware Road for a late-night kebab. My favourite is still Café Helen, where the kebabs are everything an unwise late night kebab should be. And then you could catch the N16 night bus, and stay on it all the way to Edgware. Night buses can be a bit leery, of course they can, but if you didn’t want adventure you could have stayed in bed staring at the ceiling and wishing for sleep that never comes. Get off the bus at the terminus, and head north. You are looking for Edgwarebury Lane. Follow it across the footbridge over the A41, through the dreariest kind of generic north London suburb – until suddenly, abruptly, you realise that the pavement has stopped, and you have come to the edge of London. In front of you is a landscape of farms, livery stables and smallholdings, admittedly bisected by the M1, but properly rural for all that. Look up. Those are stars. Look east. Dawn pinks the sky. Another night has passed.’
‘Something of the Night’ by Ian Marchant is published by Simon & Schuster.